By Bisi Fayemi
In July 2000, I spent one week in Monrovia, Liberia. It felt like three months. I was based in London at the time, working with AMwA, an international development organization for African women.
We established an African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) in 1996 which I have written about a number of times here.
The AWLI began as a three-week, Pan-African residential leadership training institute for young women leaders (25-40) across Africa.
The AWLI secretariat was based in Kampala, Uganda, and the regional institutes were run out of Uganda.
As the reputation of the AWLI as first-class networking and leadership development forum grew, we came under pressure to go beyond our focus on just young women, so we started running programs outside of the annual residential institute in Kampala, Uganda.
We began to organize sub-regional and national programs, and donor partners kept knocking on our doors to work with their grantee-partners.
After successfully running the leadership workshops for some time, we became confident in our capacity to deliver. Perhaps too confident. In July 2000, I learnt to unlearn a few things.
I arrived in Liberia with a colleague and co-facilitator from AMwA, Jackie Williams. Our training materials had been sent by courier from London.
Our office had wired money to the hotel in Monrovia for the accommodation of our trainees and other facilitators. Our local organizing partners drawn from various women’s groups in Monrovia had confirmed that everything was in place.
When we got to the hotel, we were informed that only one wing of Hotel Africana (which used to be the best hotel in Monrovia in the years before the war) was in use, but we still had more than enough rooms for the participants. Then we were taken to what would be our training room for the week.
The only available space in the part of the hotel that was open, and that could hold up to 40 people was a large room in the hotel basement. There were no windows.
The local UNDP office had provided a projector, but there was something wrong with their screen, so we could not use it. We tried to project on to the wall and we discovered that the wall had so many ridges, it was not possible to use.
Someone came up with a suggestion to use a bedsheet, so we asked the hotel to give us a large, white sheet, and we taped it to the wall and that became our screen for the week. Just as we had finished resolving the problem of the screen, I was informed that the training materials we had sent ahead had not arrived from London.
We knew we were going into a country that was in crisis, so we had packed everything we could think of – participants’ workbooks, flip chart paper, coloured paper for group work, blue-tac to stick things up on the wall, masking tape, pens, note pads, post-its, you name it, we were prepared. We called the office in London frantically, and they, in turn, called the courier service. All we could find out was that the package left London.
No one knew where it was. Fortunately, we were helped out by UNDP who gave us what they had. I started feeling a bit better, hoping that the worst was over. Of course, it was not.
The day participants arrived for the workshop, I went out for a meeting with Jackie, and we got back to the hotel around 4pm. There were up to 30 women in the hotel lobby, most of them not very happy to see us. It turned out that the hotel had not received the payment we wired from London. Again, we called London in a panic, and again we were told that the bank confirmed that the money had been sent.
We needed at least U$5,000 asa depositto get the hotel to allocate rooms to our participants. Jackie and I pulled out every debit and credit card we had between us, as well as most of the cash we had to sort it out. Since we had exhausted almost all the money we had on us, we asked the office in London to send us money via Western Union which they did.
When we went to cash the money, we were afraid to even count it because the dollar notes were so filthy, we expected something to crawl out of the pile. By this time, the reality of our environment and why things were the way they were, had started to sink in.
The Liberian sisters we had gone to work with were obviously sympathetic to our plight, but they had to deal with things way more important than disruptions to the plans of sisters from London where everything worked and nothing got lost or was untraceable. On the third night, I noted that I had more tiny cockroaches in my room than when I had first arrived.
It was as if they had started informing themselves that after so long, the room was occupied, so they should come around for a good time. I pointed the growing army of cockroaches out to Jackie and she declared, ‘Oh my God, you have an infestation! You can’t sleep here. Come over to my room’.
I packed my things and went to her room. Thirty minutes later, a rat almost the size of a cat scampered across the floor. Jackie screamed and jumped up and down. I calmly told her, ‘My sister, you are the one who needs to come to my room. I can kill cockroaches.
I can’t kill a rat’. So back to my room we went. The next day we bought a can of insect repellent and dealt with my cockroaches. Thankfully, we never saw the rat again.
During the course of the week, as we listened to our Liberian sisters talk about their experiences during and after the war, we knew we were privileged to be with such amazing women.
In spite of all the unspeakable horrors they had been through, they laughed, danced, joked and teased each other.
Yet the pain they all felt and the trauma they had lived through was visible in their eyes.It was an experience I will never forget.
I have visited several African countries recovering from years of violent conflict or political unrest, but my most humbling lesson was learnt in Liberia, the summer of 2000. I learnt that without peace, nothing good can happen. I learnt that it is only too easy to take peace for granted.
I learnt that to live your life without any fear can breed a dangerous arrogance and sense of entitlement. I learnt that even when all things fall apart, there are those who dedicate themselves to putting things back in place. Sadly, they hardly get any credit or due acknowledgement.
Eventually, things fell into place on the trip. The program was a huge success. The training materials arrived on day five with just two days to go and the hotel payment arrived on day six. By the time Jackie and I eventually boarded our flight to London via Abidjan and Brussels, after a six-hour wait at the airport, we knew better than to complain. When I arrived at Heathrow and my bags were missing, I just shrugged and went home.
Peace should be non-negotiable. As we mark another International Day of Peace (September 21st) let us all own culture of peace at an individual level. That is where it starts. Let us make peace with who we are as individuals. Yes, we all want to be more successful, richer and liked than we are now, yet we can start with being at peace with who and what we are.
Then we should try and be at peace with family members, even those who get on our nerves. It is a good thing to have friends, you don’t have to have too many of them, but be at peace with the few you have.
Forgive and ask for forgiveness. Healthy societies are built on a culture of peace and acceptance. Let us pass this on to our children and stop fueling intolerance of any kind. Do not let fundamentalisms in any form find a breeding ground in your environment.
Do you want to know what happened to those dirty dollar notes we got from Western Union in Liberia? When we got back to London, I still had some left so I took them to a bank near my office to change to pounds.
The very nice lady at the counter told me to wait for a minute, then she came back with the notes to tell me apologetically, ‘I am so sorry Madam, these notes are fake’.
I took the wretched notes from her and fled. My Accountant in the office teased me that the right thing for her to have done was to call the police. Perhaps because God Almighty knew that I went to Liberia in peace with an open heart and good intentions, I was spared. Let us live in peace with an open heart, mind and spirit. Peace is unto you. Have a great week.
The essay ‘Peace’ is in ‘Where is Your Wrapper?’ Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, published by PRESTIGE, Farafina books, October 2020.